Education & Family

What would a Con-Lib deal mean for schools?

Nick Clegg
Image caption Nick Clegg has to negotiate the change from opponent to ally

What would it really mean for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to share an education policy?

Before the election result, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, David Laws, derided the Conservatives' plans for education as "deeply flawed", "absurd" and an "incoherent muddle".

His party leader, Nick Clegg, described the Tory flagship free schools policy as a "disaster for standards".

Now the two parties are negotiating a deal - and the mood music has already changed. Uncompromising views are shifting into uncomfortable compromise.

The Conservatives, in the role of suitor, are now describing the Liberal Democrat education spokesman as "motivated by idealism".

But can the two parties find a way of bridging the gap on their education plans?

'Slashing budgets'

It's going to be a difficult balancing act.

Almost the first area of common purpose mentioned between the two parties was the "pupil premium" - a proposal put forward by both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

This is intended to target funding to schools with more disadvantaged pupils, helping to close the gap in attainment between richer and poorer pupils.

Both parties can sign up to this. Except there is a substantial distinction in the small print.

The Liberal Democrats say this needs to be part of increased investment in schools - £2.5bn worth of extra money.

The Conservatives have not been drawn on spending plans for schools, but have said nothing to suggest this kind of additional funding.

Their opponents have accused them of planning to spend less money on schools rather than billions more.

How close are these plans from the two parties?

The Liberal Democrats' proposals "couldn't be more different from Conservative plans". Who said this? Nick Clegg - less than a week ago.

And he claimed the Conservatives would be "slashing" school budgets by £29bn.

"Fewer teachers, fewer computers, and a return to the days of tumble down classrooms," said Mr Clegg, describing his view of education under the Conservatives.

Such differences in funding represent a fork in the road between the two parties.

And in the current negotiations, Liberal Democrat MPs are now asking for "clarification" on education funding under any deal.

'Clarification'

The Conservatives have made their free schools plan a signature policy - wanting parents and other organisations to be able to set up and run schools with public funding.

But if getting it through the House of Commons depends on Liberal Democrat MPs, how will they vote?

"The Swedish-style free schools they want to introduce, will, according to Swedish politicians themselves, be a disaster for standards," Nick Clegg told voters last week.

There is a major philosophical difference here that is hard to fudge.

Free schools are intended to offer an alternative to local authority control, breaking what they would see as a monopoly. The Liberal Democrat plans are rooted in the expectation that local authorities would remain in control.

It is going to be a challenge for the Liberal Democrats to push through policy which they have publicly rubbished as a "disaster" - or to support a version of the pupil premium without the funding they say is needed for it to be meaningful.

Fees pledge

On university policy, the Liberal Democrats have even less room for compromise.

Nick Clegg and David Laws have both personally signed a pledge to "vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative".

They've also traded heavily on their promise to phase out fees.

And students have claimed that some Liberal Democrat MPs have won their seats on the back of students voting over tuition fees.

The Liberal Democrats could face awkward questions if they are seen to enable a government that will keep fees and could then increase them.

There are a few areas of agreement - mostly in terms of both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives opposing Labour party proposals - such as the school report card and the teachers' licence to teach.

They both also want changes to the education watchdogs, although not necessarily the same changes.

Head teachers have offered some support for the idea of a coalition government - because it would mean less school legislation would get through.

John Dunford, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union, says that the political deadlock might put a brake on the interference in schools.

It would mean that schools policy would be restricted to the narrow areas where the parties agree.

This would mean the government would have to "concentrate on the essentials and not indulge in hyperactive education legislation," says Dr Dunford.

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